Second act

Second act
At right, Amanda North works with, from left, Megan Fisher (Customer Care) and Vrnda Dalal (Artisan Partnership), as North’s dog, Wolfie, rests under the desks at North’s home in Woodside, Calif. Photo by LiPo Ching/Bay Area News Group
GSBI mentor Amanda North thought her life was the best that could be expected—until she decided to wait at the finish line of the 2013 Boston Marathon to watch her daughter compete. This article was first published under a different title in the San Jose Mercury News on April 13, 2014.

Like many veterans of Silicon Valley’s startup culture, Amanda North had always been as much a mover as a shaker, carefully positioning herself for the next tech job and the one after that. She saw her career path, like her life, as “sequential.” But the more successful she became, the farther she found herself from her original plan: to change the world.

“You kind of wake up one day,” she says, “and wonder, ‘How did I get here?’” It was the same question she asked herself in the instant after the first bomb went off at the finish line of the Boston Marathon last year, knocking North—who was standing directly in the blast radius, 15 feet from the explosion—to the ground. She was among 264 people injured by the two bombs that went off a year ago; though her wounds healed quickly, her life would never again be the same.

“After any near-death experience, you want to make every day count,” North says. “But it’s turned my life upside down. For me, it was almost like there was a rearrangement of the neural pathways in my brain.”

Helping others: Amanda North helps fellow victim Erika Brannock after the Boston Marathon bombing. Read more about North at Bloomberg Businessweekand her reunion with Brannock at the Boston GlobePhoto by John Tlumacki/Boston Globe

She knew then that there was no going back to the life she had before.

So at age 57, North last week launched her own company for the first time. Artisan Connect—conceived around the idea of doing well by doing good—creates an online marketplace for handmade goods that should help make the work of artisans in far-flung villages more sustainable.

“Most of my friends are retiring,” she says. “The marathon bombing has been transformational for me. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be doing this company now, that’s for sure. Plenty of times I’ve woken up in the middle of the night in an utter panic, and thought, ‘Why am I doing this? I must be crazy.’ It’s as if I’m possessed.”

The year before the Boston Marathon, North had taken what she expected to be her final corporate post as vice president of communications and marketing at AOptix, then settled in to wait for the privately held Campbell company to have a “financial event”—presumably an IPO or acquisition—that would secure her future. Changing the world would have to wait.

“I had assumed that I would focus on that a little later—after I had the business success and financial wherewithal to be able to make that change,” she says.

She would later go to Boston to see her daughter, Lili, run the marathon, and was waiting near the finish line when the explosions erupted, killing three spectators and injuring 14 others so grievously that their legs were amputated. Lili was 100 yards from the finish, and though she, too, was knocked off her feet, she escaped injury. In the chaotic aftermath of the bombing, the two became separated, but Lili found her mother at a Boston hospital that night. When the two were finally alone, Lili told her mother, “We’ve both been spared by a miracle. We need to think about our passions and our purpose, because life will never be the same.”

Amanda North would later be identified as one of the heroes of that day, coming to the aid of a young schoolteacher named Erika Brannock, who credited North with saving her life. Almost immediately, North saw the second chance at life she’d been given as her own personal startup.

“I knew that night that something had fundamentally changed for me,” she says. “Within a week of the marathon, I had in my mind the big-picture idea of what I wanted to do.”

She didn’t have to look far for her idea.

North’s home in Woodside was filled with small, hand-crafted treasures she had found while traveling to faraway places. Now she wanted to help the artisans who made them—many of them in developing-world countries such as Cambodia and Bolivia—connect with the $65 billion American home-decor market using cutting-edge Silicon Valley tools.

North is not the first upper-middle-class American to visit Angkor Wat and discover the pillowcases weaved from raw silk by Khmer artisans. But she was struck by the number of artisans she met who feared they would be the last generation to do their painstaking work. Many had already left their small villages to work in urban call centers.

Under North’s business model, artisans would see a 20 percent return on the retail price of their goods, compared to the usual 5 to 7 percent.

Todd Johnson, a partner at the Palo Alto law firm Jones Day and one of the pioneers in what came to be known as social venture, heard North speak at their Menlo Park church, and he offered to help her avoid some of the pitfalls of the do-gooder entrepreneur.

“I’ve seen platform plays like this before,” he says. “They were trying to connect Western consumers to developing-world producers as a way to create a more efficient supply chain and get more of the retail dollars in the hands of people living in extreme poverty. And they’ve all struggled mightily. But I think she’s going to crack it.”

North has volunteered as a mentor at Santa Clara University’s Center for Science, Technology, and Society, which pitched in as an incubator for her idea.

“Just because you’ve started a venture in Silicon Valley doesn’t mean you know how to start one in Nepal, Uganda, or Brazil,” says Thane Kreiner, the center’s executive director. “Amanda came to us and said she had been through this experience at the Boston Marathon and was really questioning what she wanted to do with her life. That made her really think about her purpose in life and how she could best contribute.”

Like any startup founder, North now must test her ideas—and herself—in the marketplace. It is a marathon, not a sprint, so she has started the process by returning to Boston for a tribute to the injured and the dead. Amanda also watched Lili compete in this year’s race. Neither one will ever be the same.
Amanda North is a mentor in SCU’s Global Social Benefit Institute, as well as the first Social Entrepreneur-in-Residence in the Center for Science, Techology, and Society.

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